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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Baby Naming Issue: Differentiating Nicknames for Two People With the Same Name

Taylor writes:
So I have another somewhat unusual question for you.  You helped me name my second son Asa who was born in April.  I didn't mention this in my naming update to you, but Asa was actually born with an unexpected rare genetic condition that results in a pretty significant facial difference and blindness. He may have other issues that will reveal themselves in the future (e.g., developmental delays), but, currently, he is a healthy and happy baby boy.

My question for you and your readers is below. Asa is a somewhat unusual name and one of the reasons we chose it was because it is unique. When Asa was born, my friend and neighbor told me that if she and her husband ever had a boy they had always planned on naming him J0hn Asa. I don't believe in "claiming" names or preventing others from using the name you have chosen for your baby, so I told her I thought that was a beautiful name and I hoped she used it. She is now pregnant with a boy and has again informed me that they plan on naming the child J0hn Asa. However, in passing the other day, she referred to her baby as Asa, which indicated to me that they plan on calling the baby by his middle name. If my Asa had not been born with a facial difference and a disability, I would be totally fine with her using that name. Happy even--I feel like it validates my choice! However, given that we are neighbors and our kids will all go to the same schools and play together, I am worried that other children will distinguish between her Asa and my Asa by calling mine "Blind Asa" or something worse.

I recognize that kids are mean and they may call him names regardless, but, for some reason, I am really worried about this particular scenario and not sure how to handle it. Any thoughts?  Feel free to tell me I am being oversensitive!

In my experience so far, the standard way to differentiate between two children with the same first name is to use the last name: Alyssa Thomas and Alyssa Young, for example, or Alyssa T. and Alyssa Y. When I think of our household, I realize there is also a second method, which is to call them Swimming Class Alyssa and William's Friend Alyssa. This is where the concern about a name such as "Blind Asa" comes in. However, as I think of other cases where we use descriptor names such as Swimming Class, all of the descriptions are non-derogatory, and based on who the person is to us or what they do, not what they look like. We might have "Middle School Alyssa" and "Alyssa From The Park," but not "Ugly Alyssa" and "Alyssa With The Bad Clothes"---or even "Blonde Alyssa" and "Old Alyssa."

This hasn't been deliberate: we didn't have to say to ourselves or to the children anything like "Hey, we should come up with pleasant and non-physical ways to tell the two Alyssas apart!" It was natural to think of these descriptors. It gave me a startled/shocked feeling to think of anyone of normal disposition using a differentiating name such as Blind Asa---or letting it slip past if they heard someone else (such as a child who might not yet be aware of social issues such as these) say it. Although it's impossible to protect our children from unkindness, this is the variety of unkindness that would not be tolerated in the current cultural climate. I can't picture it just evolving as the standard way any regular person would differentiate between the two boys named Asa. I find I have trouble even typing it, let alone imagining myself or a teacher or a parent saying it.

I think too that it's something you could mention here and there for as long as both boys do share the same circle of peers. I would, for example, put in a word to each of your Asa's teachers, because I'd think they would be very open to hearing such concerns and could then keep an especially sharp ear out for it. (I suspect, though, that they would already be on high alert for such things.) A very stern and pointed "Do you mean Asa B.?" can nip things in the bud---if things bud at all.

It might even be possible to mention the issue to your friend, if the conversation turns in a direction where such a comment feels it would be natural---though it doesn't seem worth it to force it if such a conversational direction never occurs. A brief and casual "I'm a little worried the kids will call them Asa and Blind Asa" might alert her to the issue as well: it's unlikely she'd choose a different name at this point (thought it may be a new thought to her that her own child's differentiating name could end up being "John Asa" instead of the Asa she may prefer), but she too could be alert for any situation where instant correction was needed.

One more reassuring thought is that your Asa and her Asa will likely be in different grades at school, if your district uses the usual September-birthday cut-off. Your Asa, born in April, will start school a year before her Asa. A difference in grade can make a huge difference in peer groups and play circles.


Anonymous said...

I am pretty impressed with how sensitive and tolerant kids are nowadays. I really don't think anyone would try and give your Asa a derogatory version of his name and anyone who tried would be swiftly corrected by a parent, teacher or even fellow student. There is always the chance that your friend's Asa will decide he prefers John, fixing the problem altogether!

Kaela said...

I can remember two boys who shared a name in my elementary school class year. One had developmental issues and the other did not. No one referred to them as anything other than "Josh S." and "Josh B."

I do remember in my first year of college there was a girl named Mary who was blind, and she was sometimes referred to as "Mary, the one who is blind", to differentiate her from another Mary, but never as "Blind Mary" or anything similarly derogatory. I think the vast majority of people are very sensitive, though, to something like that, and besides not wanting to cause pain, would be mortified to appear as boorish and lame as someone who would casually mark someone by their different ability, right in their (nick)name.

That said, I understand your concern-- it would occur to me, too. But I think you should just cross that bridge when you get to it, and do mention it to the mother sometime if you can do it in a casual way.

Best of luck!

Helena said...

This broke my heart - I can absolutely see how a mother would have that concern weighing on her. I think, as was said by everyone so far, that if some kid described your Asa in anyway other than Asa First-Letter they would (and SHOULD) be corrected.

We had kids on my block with the same name, and we kids called them "big Danny" and "little Danny" which, in hindsight, I would have hated because no girl wants to be "big" (due to societal pressures and that's another story) but we just meant that one Danny was older than the other.

Take heart, Asa FirstLetter's Mom.

mamashine said...

I can completely see how this would bother you ahead of time as a mom- mama bear instinct makes me think of how I would deal with worst case scenarios in advance. However, I do agree with everyone else that it is not likely to be an issue.

My son has 2 girls named Haley in his class, and the teacher started calling them both by first and middle, so now he has Hailey Nicole and Haley Madison. I talked to one of their moms the other day and she was saying how it sort of caught her off guard because they've NEVER called her by both names, but she likes it. And now her daughter insists on being called Hailey Nicole. :)

Myra said...

My first instinct is to tell you to share your concerns with your neighbor who is pregnant. Like the other commenters, I think (hope) you will be surprised by people’s sensitivities about blindness and names that highlight physical differences. But I also think that opening up about a concern like this-- in a nonchalant manner-- can only help in the long run.
It’s not like you’re asking her to change her choice of names (and it sounds like it has been their name crush for a long time), just sharing your concern about your own son. It may not have occurred to her that these boys will have to distinguish themselves from one another. She may opt for “J0hn Asa” because it would be easier for everyone.

Another reason to mention it to her: she’s your friend and neighbor; she can help support you and your son for as long as you live there, if not forever. She could be a great advocate if ever someone is insensitive enough to say “blind Asa.”

Anonymous said...

I think it might help that most of these kids will know each other from kindergarden and first grade or even earlier. It should be pretty easy for them to pick up whatever names the adults around them are using, and at that age they are still so well supervised that there should be lots of chances to hear what they are saying and step in if necessary.

Claire Wessel said...

I'm pretty sure parents and teachers would nip "Blind Asa" in the bud real quick! Kids do just naturally find their own ways of differentiating though. For instance, there are two kids named Skyler in my son's preschool class. The names are spelled different, but they have the same sound and initial for last name, so Skyler H. won't work. However, one is a boy, and the other a girl. So, the kids just started calling them Skyler Boy and Skyler Girl, which makes them seem a bit like superheros if you ask me! It's cute, it works, and it's probably going to stick with them as long as they are in the same schools. Chances are with your boys, one will end up "Ace" and the other "Asa" or both Asa unless the other is around and then they will call one Asa and the other John Asa, etc. Who knows what will evolve! Nicknames are funny like that. My friend's daughter Bianca is a total tomboy and ended up getting called Bonk and Bonkers in the end. It happens!